AUSTIN, Texas – St. Ignatius should have felt good about that kickoff.
Already up two scores in the Holy War, the raging rivalry between two of Ohio’s premier Catholic programs, kicker Cory Griffith sent the ball screaming toward the St. Edward goal line. If it broke the plane, it was a touchback. And considering the guy back there fumbled away two punts in the Holy War a year prior, getting overly strategic about Shaun Crawford at this moment didn’t make much sense.
For Crawford to even attempt to return the kick meant jumping to catch that line drive over his head. Which is exactly what Crawford did before returning it 99 yards for a touchdown – he’d score twice more to go with an interception – as St. Ed’s scored 41 straight points in the 41-10 blowout.
“It’s that competitive nature that I have, wanting to be the best and do things that people don’t see often,” Crawford said.
At some point this season, maybe even Sunday night here inside Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium, Crawford will be described as a breakout star, a story with out-of-the-blue qualities. Don’t believe it. Because anybody who’s tracked Crawford’s career, from junior high rec leagues in Cleveland to winter workouts in South Florida, saw this coming.
Crawford has too many star qualities for this not to work and Brian VanGorder’s defense is too desperate for stars for it not to click.
This was all supposed to happen last year until Crawford tore his right ACL in mid-August, the kind of injury that devastated Notre Dame a little more every Saturday. Crawford had already won the starting nickel job, translating VanGorder’s scheme in two weeks while others couldn’t in two years.
“Last year in camp when he first came out here it was like, ‘Who is this? I like this guy,’” said linebacker Nyles Morgan. “He was just balling. His ambition is through the roof.”
To understand how rare a talent Crawford was, consider Notre Dame basically scrapped its nickel package by mid-September. Losing a player with zero career snaps forced a rethink of the entire scheme.
“I’d see coach VanGorder, he can’t run the defense he wants to run because I’m not out there,” Crawford said. “That hurts me because I can’t help the team out really. It hurt a lot.”
Crawford watched last year’s rout of Texas from the campus medical clinic after surgery with his parents. He watched the win at Virginia from the Gug. He didn’t travel to road games. His parents wouldn’t come to home ones, saving that experience for when their son could compete.
On nights before games he wouldn’t play in, Crawford met Morgan and defensive end Jay Hayes to work out, sometimes past midnight. Crawford would bring a deck of cards, a workout he picked up from a Ray Lewis video. They’d flip a card and do pushups to match the value. Face cards were worth 25 pushups. Jokers were worth 50. They’d finish the deck.
“Our arms would be blown out by that time,” Crawford said. “After a while you’re feeling it and you’re pushing each other to get going. It made beasts out of us.”
Like most events in Crawford’s career, that transformation was not accidental.
As a preteen, Crawford’s family moved into the Cleveland suburbs, which meant playing suburban Pop Warner football with all the stereotypes that come with it. Crawford didn’t go past halftime most games because no one wanted to see a little league team score 100 points.
“They’d just give him sweeps and it would be seven carries for seven touchdowns,” said father John Crawford. “He just out-ran everybody down the field.”
That was fine by Shaun, who was competing in national AAU track meets on the side. John was less on board with those exhibitions and reached out to coach Fred Baker of the East 88th Street Browns. Joining meant a 30-to-40 minute practice commute at least three times a week. It also meant Crawford started to compete with talent that would end up at Ohio State, Michigan State and Syracuse.
Baker counts Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard among his former players.
Now Crawford was never the biggest player on the field. Sometimes he wasn’t even the fastest, despite being an AAU national champion in the 100, 200 and long jump. The game came harder, but it still came. The suburban kid won over his city teammates.
“If he could break your ankles 20 times, he’d break them. And he did that continuously,” Baker said. “He would never, ever talk back. Never said no. Never. They don’t make them like that anymore.
“I wish you could have seen him.”
Baker helped steer Crawford into St. Ed’s, where he starred at a half dozen positions and developed into a Top 100 prospect, even though Notre Dame thought he was too small at 5-foot-8½ for Bob Diaco’s defense. Crawford visited South Bend the June before his junior year and met with Diaco – Brian Kelly wasn’t even on campus – and left without an offer.
John was ticked. Shaun was motivated.
“It didn’t discourage him,” John said. “He felt he’d just go on the field and show that guy he belonged. Shortly after that, coach Kelly met him and it was night and day.”
Crawford would commit to Notre Dame on Father’s Day a year later.
Coming to South Bend was the next step in Crawford’s will-travel-for-competition march, but it wasn’t his furthest. That came last December when Crawford spent part of Christmas break in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with his former high school quarterback Brett Kean, now at USF.
Kean wanted to take Crawford to the beach. Crawford, barely four months removed from that torn ACL, wanted to train. So he got himself into the Premier Athletes facility, where he worked with star Miami freshman receiver Sam Bruce and the next wave of five-star prospects.
“It’s just a different caliber of athletes down there,” Crawford said. “I just wanted to get a taste.”
Until Sunday night against Texas, that’s all Crawford has delivered, a preview of something so many are sure will be a hit.
Notre Dame’s offense is already sold. The rest of college football might soon be too.
“He’s not afraid,” said receiver Torii Hunter Jr. “He’ll try to jam you up at the line and try to bully you. He doesn’t look (like a bully), but he’s gonna try to play that way. I respect him for that.”
“He reminds me of Tyrann Mathieu,” said running back Tarean Folston. “Always around the ball. Small guy, but he’s a dog. He’s a straight dog.”